in a boozy, rambling and now-classic 1971 essay titled "James Taylor Marked for Death," the late rock critic Lester Bangs complained that if he had to hear one more "Jesus-walking-the-
boys-and-girls-down-a-Carolina-path-while-the-dilemma-of-existence-crashes-like-a-slab-of-hod-on-J.T.'s-shoulders-song," he was personally going to drive down to Carolina and break off "a bottle of Ripple" in James Taylor's guts. (Bangs never did mince words.) I have friends who feel something similar about the folk singer Nanci Griffith. They deplore her high, flighty voice, her coyly buttoned-up persona, the occasional sweetness of her material, her inherent lack of drama and gravitas.
Well, fine. Nanci Griffith is never going to be Lucinda Williams. Yet it's a mistake to underestimate her. At her best -- such as on her 1993 collection of cover versions, "Other Voices, Other Rooms" -- Griffith comes off like a sturdy craftswoman, a woman whose voice smuggles in a surprising amount of understated astringency and a genuine sense of quiet desperation. Her taste in cover material (and collaborators) takes her a long way. "Other Voices, Other Rooms" snagged material from songwriters ranging from Townes Van Zandt to Bob Dylan to John Prine, and Griffith's backing musicians were a virtual country-folk who's-who:
Emmylou Harris, Iris Dement, Alison Krauss, Leo Kottke. (Michael Stipe and U2 are also F-O-G's, and have appeared on her albums.)
Griffith can seem more adrift when she's working with her own material, as her new album, "Blue Roses From the Moon," demonstrates all too well.
It's not that the songs here don't all sound swell enough, if you're not listening very closely -- any one of them might make you feel like you're listening to "Mountain Stage" on a good-to-average night. Griffith plays here with her regular backing band, the Blue Moon Orchestra, as well as with a rangier Texas band called the Crickets (yes, Buddy Holly's old band), and the sound is what you've come to expect from her -- violins and acoustic guitars above a gentle wash of keyboards. But too often Griffith overreaches lyrically, and her quavery voice makes her subject matter sound faintly ridiculous. When Griffith sings, on "Gulf
Coast Highway," about a man who "worked the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico," you cringe, because Griffith's voice just doesn't seem lived-in enough to give the song any heft. And when Hootie and the Blowfish's Darius Rucker hops in to sing back-up, the song soars up into saccharine hyperspace. Worse, as an Entertainment Weekly critic has already cracked accurately enough, Griffith's version here of "I Fought the Law" makes it sound as if she's fighting a parking ticket.
There are a few nice moments on "Blue Roses From the Moon." Griffith has a fine, jaunty time with a cover of "I Live on a Battlefield." And on the ballad "Saint Teresa of Avila," Griffith's voice sounds as grainy and world-weary as I've ever heard it. The biggest problem with "Blue Roses From the Moon" is that its second half contains some of the most obvious filler I've ever heard on an LP from a major artist. Songs like "I'll Move Along" and "Waiting for Love" are as evanescent as their titles -- they evaporate even before you're done listening to them. I don't even want to think about what Lester Bangs would have said about them.